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Not a creature was stirring (except me at the stove)


I thought I would close out 2005 in food with a selective and rapid survey of the good, the bad and the distasteful as they caught my eye, or stuck in my throat. The food world, being a part of the larger world, couldn't help partaking of the general misery. Nonetheless, it wasn't all Rachel Ray filled with glee and farmed salmon filled with PCBs.

I'll start with the big picture. Globally, 2005 offered only the suspect pleasure of "I told you so," blended with a soupçon of schadenfreude. You can't get much more global than global warming, whose effects on food production are complex, but dire. This marks the year when we--having missed the boat on preventing--need to shift to anticipating and compensating. Your children can kiss frost-enhanced collards goodbye.

Of more immediate concern is the world fisheries crisis. The wild populations that aren't busy crashing are busy accumulating toxins, including mercury. The list of acceptable fish and seafood gets smaller. The farm-raised "cure" is worse than the disease--much aquaculture inherits all the vices of terrestrial factory farming. Land and shoreline that used to support, however marginally, local third-world economies, are now turned over to export-driven monoculture. Huge quantities of fish are ground up to feed somewhat less huge quantities of fish. Petroleum is consumed.

Inferior farm-raised shrimp, often garnished with antibiotics, makes it that much harder for Louisiana's shrimpers to recover from the Katrina disaster that swamped their boats, ripped up marsh habitat and obliterated many of the processing plants. A unique way of life and a fine food may vanish.

But the globalization of food production has tentacles everywhere. Indeed, the geniuses at the World Bank gallop around informing the world's farmers that the best thing they can do is not feed themselves and their neighbors, but grow export crops. When the World Bank informs you of something, they've usually brought along a carrot-shaped stick. Vietnam, for example, got suckered into becoming, with Brazil, one of the world's leading producers of bad coffee. The glut they produced lowered all coffee prices, making the cost of production higher than the price for most farmers. The good news this year is that a combination of wisdom and drought has lowered Vietnam's coffee production. Perhaps 2006 will bring the good news that Vietnam is exiting the coffee business.

Are you cheered up yet? Maybe not. Okay, here's a better mix of news. Farmers' markets in the United States are thriving. Market farmers, the people you see at our local farmers' markets, aren't doing badly--better than "Big Farmas," particularly if you subtract the Big Farmas' enormous government subsidies. Organic products are in high demand, too, with supply not quite keeping up. But that brings us back to the bad news. Things are peculiar in the organic world. All that demand, i.e., money, has attracted some big players. Players with clout but no morals. Many well-known organic brands (Horizon, Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Stoneyfield, Silk) are owned by giant multinationals. National giants like Horizon skate close to the regulatory edge; access to pasture is not guaranteed, and organic milk can come from cows whose early years as calves were far from "organic."

The establishment of federal standards for "organic" labeling has been exactly the double-edged sword that some predicted. While it helps to get rid of both intentional and well-intentioned charlatans and adds a helpful amount of traceability to the food chain, it also penalizes small producers who may, quite rationally, want to sidestep the extra expenses of certification. And the rules are written loosely enough that many small, officially non-organic, but sustainable farms, like Maple View Farm, are ecologically and gastronomically superior to the likes of Horizon, with its giant herds and ultrapasteurization. And, certainly, sustainably raised greens bought from a local farmer trumps in every way the productions of Cal-Organic's West Coast factories.

And in 2005, the big guys scored a big victory. In collaboration with Republicans in Congress, the beguilingly named Organic Trade Association pushed through a revision to the organic labeling laws that was opposed by much of the organic farming community and organic consumers. Until the recent rider to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, the National Organic Standards Board, an independent board of farmers, retailers, consumer advocates, scientists and environmentalists oversaw the case-by-case fine-tuning of the rules. They approved, for one example, the use of various "synthetic" processing and storage aids, like carbon dioxide, pectin, and baking soda. The new law would remove many of their powers and give them directly to the industry-friendly (to put it mildly) Department of Agriculture. That means that the number of approved synthetics will likely move from 38 to more than 500. The Department of Agriculture would also get to issue "emergency" degrees, allowing the use of non-organic products in products labeled "organic."

This is, of course, a back-handed tribute to the marketing clout of the word "organic." There is a way around this. Stay away from "Big Orga." Be suspicious of processed foods, organic or not. Buy from local sustainable farms, even if they aren't officially organic.

The good news is that you can. The real good news is that our local farmers' markets are thriving; Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh, Hillsborough are all blessed with local farmers raising great produce almost year-round. The additional good news is that local pastured meat production is on the rise; this is good for your health, for the local economy and, as we wean ourselves from factory farming, for everyone. Grass-fed meat (and the milk and eggs from pastured cows and chickens) turn out to have a far better ratio of omega-3 fatty acids than the feedlot product. And they taste better. This is the best win-win situation since the iceberg lettuce boycott.

And, now, on to the good news in the food book world. Although we are very lucky to have the farming community that we do around here, we are not alone. One of the best food books of the year (in a year of good food books) is Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It by Michael Ableman (Chronicle Books), a rich, complex memoir with beautiful photographs. I'll mention two more books that made 2005 above average. My most ragged cookbook, with a prolapsed binding and dozens of homemade scratch-and-sniff pages, is Paula Wolfert's 1983 The Cooking of Southwest France (Wiley). She never writes a bad cookbook and she often writes great ones: The Cooking of Southwest France is one of her great ones. This year, she reissued it, thoroughly revised and expanded

Visions of Wolfert's pork confit dancing in my head led me to think of other "value-added" meat products, aka charcuterie. Which is, curiously enough, the title of my other book of the year: Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (Norton). My splurge was a bolt-down cast-iron hand grinder for making sausage, but it still lives more in the realm of sausage dreams than sausage reality. Sausage is often best left to professionals; but, except for Mark Ivey, the butcher at Fowler's (and a few restaurants) no one around even makes simple sausage, much less the more elaborate concoctions that turn sows' ears into silken savories. This book makes a fine companion for Paul Bertolli's 2003 Cooking by Hand (Clarkson Potter).

Despite my plug, it wasn't hand-cranking and cast iron that sold big in 2005. No, the big 2005 food trend (at least as urged in glossy publications) was all about the opposite of handmade food. It was about high-tech gadgetry. Spain's Ferrán Adriá got a lot of press as the best chef in the world; he uses many high-tech gadgets adapted from science labs to produce intensely flavored foams, tricky contrasts of tastes, textures and temperatures, and strange juxtapositions of flavor.

Many of these devices are beginning to leak into the non-professional world. So, for a thousand dollars you can buy a Thermomix. It's a blender. No, it's a simmerer and sautéer. It's a weigher. And stirrer. And steamer of fish. All quite useful if you essentially don't like to cook. Coming soon: The I Hate to Stir Cookbook.

And if you want to spend triple that thousand, you can get a Paco Jet ( ). It makes sorbet and ice cream. Out of anything. Like asparagus. Fast. And you thought that créme brulée torch was high-tech.

Me, I like hand-cranking. I'm cranky that way. But here's the really good news: 2006 will be better. Has to be.

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